Major breakthroughs in astronomy aren't only reserved for professional scientists, as proven by a high school student who recently helped discover a new astronomical object.
In March 2009, West Virginia student Lucas Bolyard came across the signature of the object while working on a project that trains students to help analyze astronomical data. He passed the interesting signal on to supervising astronomers, who determined it was probably a rare object known as a rotating radio transient.
These strange neutron stars (extremely dense stars made up almost entirely of the subatomic particles neutrons) emit sporadic bursts of radio waves. There are only about 30 rotating radio transients known.
At the time of the discovery, Bolyard, a sophomore at South Harrison High School in Clarksburg, W. Va., had already waded through more than 2,000 data plots and found nothing. He was sorting through images from the giant Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in Green Bank as part of the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, a joint project of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and West Virginia University, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
"I was home on a weekend and had nothing to do, so I decided to look at some more plots from the GBT," he said. "I saw a plot with a pulse, but there was a lot of radio interference, too. The pulse almost got dismissed as interference."
He reported the pulse as an anomaly worth further investigation, and it went on a list of candidates for West Virginia University astronomers Maura McLaughlin and Duncan Lorimer to reexamine.
When the astronomers took follow-up observations, they found nothing in the spot where the pulse came from. This proved that it was not a normal pulsar, which is a type of neutron that rotates, emitting a continuous lighthouse beam of light.
In July 2009, the scientists confirmed that the original pulse signal was real, and not interference, by reprocessing the raw data. This indicated that the strange object was probably a rare rotating radio transient.
At the time, Bolyard was at the observatory with fellow students. They had been observing on the GBT all night and were exhausted. But when Lorimer showed Bolyard the new plot of his pulse showing that it was a real signal, Bolyard didn't feel tired anymore.
"That news made me full of energy," he said.
Rotating radio transients are thought to be similar to regular pulsars, but they emit intermittently, one burst a time, instead of continuously. This characteristic makes them hard to find - the first one was discovered in 2006.
"These objects are very interesting, both by themselves and for what they tell us about neutron stars and supernovae," McLaughlin said. "We don?t know what makes them different from pulsars - why they turn on and off. If we answer that question, it?s likely to tell us something new about the environments of pulsars and how their radio waves are generated."
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